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Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami

January 26, 2022 33 comments

Novelist as a Vocation by Murakami Haruki (2015) French title: Profession romancier. Translated by Hélène Morita.

In Novelist as a Vocation, published in 2015, Haruki Murakami writes about his experience as a novelist. The book is composed of eleven chapters, the first six had been previously published in Monkey Business and the five others are new. In French, it is translated as Profession romancier, but I don’t think there’s an English translation of this collection of essays.

I used the title Novelist as a Vocation because it is included in my French copy of the book, under the original title in Japanese, shokugyõ toshite no shōsetsuka.

But Novelist as a Vocation isn’t the same as Profession romancier, which means Novelist as a profession. Between vocation and profession, in my opinion, stands the line between artist and craftsman. The Japanese title means Occupation: Novelist (Thanks Marina Sofia!), closer to the French title. Back to the book.

Murakami evokes several aspects of his life as a writer. How anybody can decide to write a book. How he had an epiphany at a baseball game –hence the cover of the book, I imagine—and how he decided to write a novel. His first success when he was thirty. He talks about literary prizes and says he doesn’t care he never won the Akutagawa prize. He’s still a hugely successful writer.

After these generalities, he dissects his writing life and his vision of talent. For him, being “original”, “new” will only be validated with time. Will a book become a classic? Is it really a revolution in literature the way the Beatles were a revolution in music? Time will tell if the public includes a novel in their modern classic pantheon or forgets it.

He gives recommendation to aspiring writers and describes his disciplined life. Write 400 signs per day. First draft. Re-read and correct. Second draft. Start again the process. His wife is his first reader and critic. He says he gives his best to each book and thus has no regret. He couldn’t have written them better at the time he wrote them. Sounds like a smart way to look at things.

His days are made of early rising, writing five to six hours and running for an hour. He insists on the importance of being fit to be a long-lasting writer. Your body must be an ally and not get in the way of your writing.

He gives us a glimpse at his school years and how he was bored in school. Books were his anchor and his solace.

The pages about his writing and the evolution of his style made me think that a reader should read his books in their order of publication. Each one was a step towards the writer he is now. He explains how, at the beginning of his writing career, he was unable to give names to his characters. He comes back to the first time he thought he could pull off a third person narrative.

He talks about his readers and the imaginary bond he feels between his words and the people who read them and receive them. However, he recommends to write for oneself and not for readers. A sign of success? For him, he’s happy when his books are read by people of different generations.

He also comes back to his moving to the USA, the reasons why he left Japan and his early successes in America. He had a plan to conquer the American market, one that included a good agent, a good translator and a willing publisher.

He’s very humble all the time, as if he weren’t that talented or as if the idea of writing came late and out of the blue.*

But between the lines you can sketch out a personality who stands out and doesn’t conform. He was born in 1949, it must have been hard not to conform in Japan, when he was young. He acknowledges that he didn’t follow standards, go to university, start a job in an office and get married. He got married first, opened a jazz bar with his wife and then got his degree. Then he started to write.

We guess that he’s someone who is an individual, who needs to do what he wants and live according to his own tune. Not a rebel or someone dangerous, more someone closer to the Western vision of individuality than to the Japanese culture of being one in a crowd. He is different and original compared to other Japanese men of his time.

He has a unique personality, backed up by a strong work ethic and a will to be successful, despite his apparent protests. This influences his books and that’s probably why they sound original. He doesn’t feel special but he is and so are his books.

I am not a die-hard Murakami fan. I loved South of the Border, West of the Sun and Kafka on the Shore (pre-blog). I wasn’t too fond of Norwegian Wood and couldn’t finish The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Incidentally, my billet titles are all related to music: Teen without spirit for Norwegian Wood, She moves him in mysterious ways for South of the Border, West of the Sun and lastly The wind-up bird never sang to me for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. (obviously)

After reading Profession romancier, I feel like trying another of his books and thanks to Marina’s post about Sputnik Sweetheart, I picked this one as my next Murakami.

This contributes to two blogging events, Japanese Lit Challenge 15 hosted by Meredith and Nonfiction Reader Challenge hosted by Shellyrae.

Teen without spirit

June 25, 2012 23 comments

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. 1987 French title: La ballade de l’impossible. 

That’s it, I’ve finished Norwegian Wood and I’m ready to write my thoughts about it.

When the books opens, Watanabe is on a plane, approaching Germany. Hearing Norwegian Wood by the Beatles triggers some memories of his youth. The memories flow out painfully.

Watanabe is 18, he’s moving in a student house in Tôkyô for his first year of university. When he was in high school, his best friend Kizuki committed suicide. Watanabe, Kizuki and his long-time girl-friend Naoko were often together, the three of them spending their free time together.

Naoko is also in Tôkyô now and she and Watanabe spend time wandering across the town in companionable silence. When Naoko turns 19, they celebrate together and one thing leading to the other, they have sex. Naoko leaves town and when Watanabe hears from her again, she’s in a nursing home. Naoko is unbalanced, her fragile mind hesitates on the verge of reason, on the verge of craziness, it depends of the day. Murakami describes Watanabe’s life in his student house and his later encounter with a fellow student Midori. She has her share of misery too: her mother is dead and now her father is dying too. She befriends with Watanabe; she craves for attention and Watanabe is hopelessly in love with Naoko. We also meet Reiko, Naoko’s room mate in the nursing house and Nagasawa, Watanabe’s friend at the university.

That’s basically all what happens, which is not a problem per se. I like contemplative books too. This one opens with melancholy and remains on a minor tone all along but I didn’t like it. Melancholy can be beautiful, here I found it flat and grey. This book is grey. Watanabe is numb, boneless. He winds himself up every morning – except on Sundays, he says – does what he has to do, studies, works in a music store, cleans his room, irons his clothes, eats, goes out with a friend, has flings. He’s on automatic pilot.

I know the main issues in this novel are depression, suicide, mental sickness and the difficulty to become an adult. Murakami succeeded in making me indifferent to his characters, in enveloping me in a cloud of grey thoughts, like Watanabe who tries to recover from Kizuki’s death. I felt as distant from him as he is from his life. I felt no compassion and that’s probably what bothers me. I could say it’s a coming of age novel but I’d rather say it’s a bildungsroman. It’s more appropriate as the whole story starts in Germany, as Watanabe studies German and reads The Magic Mountain. All the characters don’t “fit in”. They don’t feel “normal” and some manage better than others to cope with it.

I have difficulties with wimps, be it in real life or in literature. I wanted to shake Watanabe. In the three last Murakami I’ve tried or read (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, South of the Border, West of the Sun and this one), the men are pathetic. They don’t live their life, they put up with it. Even before Kizuki’s death, I imagined Watanabe as a follower, going where his friend went, playing gooseberry with Kizuki and Naoko, never thinking of refusing this awkward situation. He doesn’t have his own goals, his own wishes, his own hobbies.

On the back cover of my French edition, they compare Murakami to Francis Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t see why. Fitzgerald’s prose is like champagne, sparkling, light and heady. Murakami’s style is dull in comparison. 440 pages of book and I have no quote to share, which tells everything. And, as I wrote in my previous post, I have the feeling that Murakami writes some Murakami, which is not fair for this book as it’s among his first ones. It’s the others which are repetitions of this one and not the contrary. How can I say it? There’s a feeling of déjà vu, of literary tricks already used — like the stories in the story — , of an atmosphere I’ve already met. It was novelty when I read his other books, it’s not any more. So yes, I’m disappointed, I expected better from someone who receives so much praise. Definitely not reading the long IQ84.

Bellezza organizes a Japanese Literature challenge, this is my first contribution to her event.

She moves him in mysterious ways

December 8, 2010 34 comments

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami.

I don’t know where to start, I’m still knocked out by Murakami. Third book in six months about an unforgettable past love coming back in present time and upsetting a comfortable and happy routine. Journey Into the Past. The Art of Losing. South of the Border, West of the Sun. All three breathtaking. All three moving and questioning.

Hajime and Shimamoto-San were close friends when they were children. 12 years old, adolescence is timidly arriving, transforming this deep friendship into a love than cannot yet be mouthed. Desire is about to bloom. Then Shimamoto-San leaves the town. They stop seeing each other. Shimamoto-San moves out, Hajime moves on.

Hajime has a high school romance with Izumi which ends up in Izumi being hurt and Hajime moving to Tokyo. After university, he finds a boring job in a publishing house, spends 10 years there, bored and single. He meets Yukiko during a vacation and it is love at first sight. He is 30 now, it’s time to settle, they happily move in a new home. Two daughters arrive. Yukiko’s father helps Hajime to start his own business. He opens two jazz clubs in Tokyo. He loves his wife. He loves his daughters. He loves his job. He is successful. Life seems perfect.

But Shimamoto-San hides somewhere in his head, despite this happiness, this perfect life. She’s behind a door which stands ajar, as it cannot be shut, the relationship abruptly frozen by absence. One February night, the mysterious Shimamoto-San comes to the Robin’s Nest, one of Hajime’s bars. She is a sort of Japanese Santa Ana coming from the south of the border, a wind that opens wide the half-open door.

What will this throw on their lives? Can they find their love intact? What consequences will this have on Yukiko’s life? What’s the mystery surrounding Shimamoto-San?

Hajime is the narrator of this story, everything is seen through his eyes. It is a first person narrative. The language is perfect in precision and in its reserved tone. Feelings are dissected with clarity, lucidity. There’s a quiet sadness in the fatality of this story.

 Yukiko looks like Naomi in The Art of Losing. She doesn’t deserve to be hurt. She’s facing something bigger than her. Though she’s pretty and loveable, she’s not enough. The relationships in the three novels I mentioned in my introduction have a common point: they stopped unexpectedly and couldn’t come to term. They linger in memories, tainted by ifs. If Shimamoto-San hadn’t moved away? If WWI hadn’t prevented Ludwig to come back to Germany in due time? If Lydia had left Martin when it was still simple to do it? They left a sweet-sour taste of unfinished and left behind an emptiness.

Like after A Journey into the Past, I’m terribly frustrated not to be able to share quotes and show how wonderful Murakami’s prose is. My copy is in French, translated by Corinne Atlan, the usual translator for Murakami. The story takes place in Japan but it could be anywhere else. Without the Japanese names of places and characters, the reader would forget it’s Japan. Hajime listens to jazz and Western classical music. No specific food is eaten. There are no descriptions of houses, furniture or traditional buildings. They go to cafés, drink whisky. At a moment, Hajime says it is Christmas. Do they celebrate Christmas in Japan? If they do, it is as sad as pumpkins all over France at the end of October. Murakami published South of the Border, West of the Sun in 1992 and he didn’t live in Japan at that time. Did that exile influence his writing?

There would be much to say on this book but I don’t want to ruin someone’s pleasure by giving away spoilers. However, if anyone has already read it and remembers it well, I’d be glad to discuss it further in the comments. I don’t like to be left alone with such a powerful book.

The Wind-Up Bird never sang to me.

August 7, 2010 11 comments

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, by Haruki Murakami.

 Opening a new book is like opening the door to a new country. Sometimes you fall into that country right from the first page and sometimes you need to walk down a several-pages hall to reach the country. And sometimes you think Daedalus designed the hall and you never reach the promised land. That’s what happened to me with the Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.

The main protagonist of the book is Toru Okada. He’s thirty years old, married six years to Kumiko and unemployed after he quit his job as an assistant in a law firm. He is at home and plays the househusband (I know the word doesn’t exist, what are Anglophone feminists doing?)

He is bored. His life changes as he answers an enigmatic phone call from an unknown woman who seems to know him well. Several new persons enter his life, each of them quite weird. His first-person narrative is interrupted by these people telling their story. A Sheerazade sort of effect. 

 I guess the purpose of the novel was to develop Taru Okada’s character and bring him somewhere. He’s questioning his life but as he’s as swift as a mollusc, I didn’t like him. I don’t have to like the hero to like a book, however, the hero must at least have some consistency. Taru Okada seems so empty! Maybe that’s where Murakami wanted to go. Maybe he needed an empty character to be the recipient of other people’s stories. 

I will never know. 

Unfortunately, I never entered into this book. I thought it well written but so insipid that I stopped reading it at page 275, after the beginning of the second part. I had 600 pages left to read and that was too much. I was taking it reluctantly, I had to read a few pages back to remember where I was before going on and I couldn’t remember the name of the hero. All bad signs that yell “stop reading”.  

I’m disappointed, as I liked Kafka on the Shore. Maybe I’ll try another Murakami another time and I’ll try to find bloggers’ reviews before choosing it. 

Now, I’m reading The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler and after a three-paragraphs threshold, he swallowed in his world. Promising.

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